The Power of a Name

Chris Jones, D.D. Dawson, and Joshua Huffman in studio
A Democratic, Republican, and independent candidate walk into a radio studio…

While reading online last night, I was reminded of an encounter from mid 2012.  To set the scene, it was a Republican gathering in Harrisonburg shortly after a primary where Representative Bob Goodlatte fended off a challenge for the Republican nomination for the 6th district seat from Karen Kwiatkowski.  As many of you may know, I was a volunteer for her campaign.  Although I had been an ardent supporter of Representative Goodlatte from 1995 to 2010, I no longer believed that he represented my values in Washington while Kwiatkowski articulated a much better message.  Anyway, at this meeting Bob Goodlatte saw me, came over, and stated that he hoped that I would now support him as much as I supported his opponent.  It may sound strange at first reading, but I found his statement quite offensive.

You see, leading up to the primary, Bob Goodlatte seemed to do his best to try and ignore Karen’s challenge.  He steadfastly refused to debate her and, to the best of my knowledge, he never mentioned her by name.  On the scant times he referenced her, she was always identified as “my opponent.”  Then, even after the election was over, she still wasn’t worthy of being called by her name.

Using the term “my opponent” isn’t something novel for Goodlatte or his campaign.  For example, in 2006 I was an employee of the Republican Party of Virginia.  I’m sure many of you will remember the “macaca moment” when then Republican Senator George Allen called one of Jim Webb’s staffers “macaca”, apparently a racial slur which likely cost Allen the election.  However, I’d like you to listen to the recording of this incident once more.

Notice what Senator Allen says.  Not once does he mention Jim Webb by name, instead calling him “my opponent” or rather curiously “your opponent” in reference to the Webb staffer, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Also, Allen doesn’t call S.R. Sidarth (the Webb staffer) by his name and instead makes up a name for him.  Even if the word macaca wasn’t a Portuguese word for a monkey, in this video Allen seems to suggest that Sidarth’s name isn’t important.  Apparently some Allen staffers called Sidarth “mohawk” based upon his hairstyle at the time.  But really, is using that term all that much better?  Rather than taking the time to learn who this fellow is who has been following him around to various campaign stops, by inventing a name for him Allen and his crew seem to suggest that Sidarth is simply a nameless replaceable staffer for the Webb campaign who doesn’t have much value.

With either of these two examples I’m not claiming that it is only Republicans who refuse to reference their opponents by name.  I’m sure politicians of all stripes do likewise.  However, as a former Republican staffer and political activist, these are two examples I personally remember.

This subject reminds me of a scene from the movie Fight Club.  If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend doing so.  Anyway, at one point the characters create a plan called Project Mayhem.  When a person is part of Project Mayhem, he is stripped of his name and becomes an undistinguished and replaceable cog in the plan.  But, when Robert Paulsen is killed and it is suggested that they secretly bury his body in the garden, Edward Norton’s character objects to calling his fallen friend a nameless and disposable object.  Here’s the scene.  (Please pardon the language and violence from the movie).

As you might imagine, I find this tactic of refusing to call one’s political adversaries by name very demeaning.  After all, a person is more than a mere political opponent, an obstacle to be overcome, or an annoyance to be brushed aside.  Be it for better or worse he or she is much more than a candidate for an election or even a series of elections.  He or she has a unique personality, has a collection of experiences, an abundance of hopes, dreams, and fears.  He or she is someone’s mother…or brother…or niece…or son.  He or she is someone’s friend, possible lover, potential mentor, or perhaps an eager pupil.

I am of the thought that everyone has at least enough human dignity to be worthy of being called by his or her name, not degraded as an “opponent” or slurred based upon their appearance.  I’d like to think that our elected officials should be at the forefront of embracing this philosophy, instead of deriding those who dare challenge their misguided perception of a divine right to rule.  In an open and fair political system especially, everyone should at least have the power of his or her name, his or her right to run for office, and the ability to express his or her opinions.

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